Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
It is no accident that John’s mother is named for Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. The relationship of black people to their church is a central theme of Go Tell It on the Mountain, the title alone signifying that the real protagonist of the novel is God. He is a stern, forbidding deity, and the characters see him as vengeful and angry. He takes away Gabriel’s beloved Esther and Royal because of the errant preacher’s sin. John is Elizabeth’s consoling reminder of Richard, with whom she has transgressed. The child’s unhappiness is Elizabeth’s repayment for lust and folly. Florence is cold, shrewish, and self-righteous, and her hatred for her brother, who is a man of God, marks her distance from real religious conviction.
God’s status as father to the saved is mirrored in the nature of the human fathers in the novel. Paternal imprinting is central to Baldwin’s descriptions. Elizabeth finds in Richard a substitute for the father’s love she did not know; Gabriel desires a son to continue his work, preaching devotion demanded in turn by the Almighty Father; and John, symbolically fatherless, yet blessed with too many fathers—the dead Richard, the tyrannical Gabriel, and God—relies on his mother’s compassion and, tellingly, finds in Brother Elisha the spiritual mentor who will understand what he has endured in the long night of his soul on the threshing floor. A secondary but important theme here is John’s latent...
(The entire section is 677 words.)
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Christian Themes (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Perhaps the dominant evidence of Christian concerns throughout the novel is its juxtaposition of Old and New Testament teachings. The teachings of the Old Testament and the New Testament are strikingly different. The former preaches discipline and submission to a wrathful God the Father; the latter teaches an appreciation of God as an all-loving Father who has endowed his children with the ability to love him and one another. The Old Testament prescribes punishment, meted out severely by patriarchal authority, as just retribution for sin. In Baldwin’s novel, Gabriel hypocritically assumes this duty, parading his piety and promising God’s wrath on Judgment Day for sinners. Analogously, Gabriel maintains strict authority in his home, dictating his family’s thoughts and actions and enforcing them with corporal punishment.
The battle between good and evil is another Christian idea prevalent in Baldwin’s novel. Gabriel’s Christian ideology—and therefore John’s, too, initially—precludes ambiguity. Walking on the street, John sees the devil’s handiwork everywhere: “the marks of Satan could be found in the faces of the people . . . the roar of the damned filled Broadway.” Initially, John is propelled toward salvation simply because he cannot stand the alternative, which can only be evil. Again, the orientation is toward the Old Testament emphasis on justice over mercy and forgiveness.
John’s uncertain relationship with his...
(The entire section is 449 words.)
Baldwin's ultimate theme, here and in his other novels, is isolation. His characters explore, sometimes unconsciously, their isolation from others and from society in general. They struggle to establish an identity, to find an acceptable place in the world, and in Go Tell It on the Mountain they express their frustrations over not being able to do either.
John Grimes, a fourteen-year-old illegitimate child, struggles with the usual problems of an adolescent male and an oppressed individual. In trying to establish his own personality, he runs up against many barriers. Race is a barrier that prevents John from fully participating in the advantages society has to offer, and the young man finds himself forced to deal with his latent, and largely inexpressible hatred of whites. John's position in the family also isolates him. As the oldest child and the only stepchild, he is doubly unique, and his attempts to form a relationship with his stepfather, Gabriel Grimes, reveal a crucial problem of the adolescent and the stepchild: the need for familial acceptance. Indeed, this need alone probably results in John's religious conversion; he wants desperately to please his family, particularly Gabriel, the fundamentalist storefront preacher in whose church John is finally converted. Finally, religion acts as a major theme in this book, for the novel centers around John's religious conversion in the Temple of the Fire Baptized. Baldwin explores what religion has...
(The entire section is 348 words.)
Identity (Search For Self)
Go Tell It on the Mountain is primarily about John Grimes' quest to find out who he really is, to distinguish the values of those around him from the ones that he holds. It is no coincidence that the novel takes place on his birthday, which is the day representing a step forward into maturity, or that it is his fourteenth, marking the boundary between childhood and young adulthood because it implies the start of puberty. The point of growing up is discovering one's own identity.
John comes from a family that is involved in his life, but, because of his father's thoughtlessness and bullying tendencies, he cannot accept that his role in this family is who he really is. Even without knowing that Gabriel Grimes is not his real father, John holds him at a distance. This could be explained as a result of Gabriel's harshness, while Roy's wild ways, which reflect the childhood Gabriel had, might be the result of his father's narcissistic pampering.
The identity that John prefers is that of "Great Leader of his People," a fantasy clearly derived from his education in the Bible. With hope, he sees glimmers of this identity being possible in the praise he receives at school, but unfortunately his family's values are deeply ingrained and he views himself as a sinner. Looking at his features in a mirror, John does not know what to think of himself, "for the principle of their unity was...
(The entire section is 1029 words.)